It has been believed for some time that Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski — Coach K — is the John Wooden of the modern era of the NCAA Tournament.
If the Wizard of Westwood was king in college basketball when the NCAA Tournament had just 25 teams — and at-large bids to second-place teams in power conferences had not yet existed (not until 1975, and not on a larger scale until the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985) — Krzyzewski is still the king in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament since the 1985 expansion year.
Even though Coach K didn’t add to his Final Four collection this year, he is still tied with John Wooden for the most Final Fours in history with 12. The other great coaches who are still active have not yet reached 10. (Roy Williams has nine, Tom Izzo now eight after his win over Duke on Sunday.)
Coach K — who has been exceptionally good in the Olympic Games, making sure the United States doesn’t have any repeats of the 2004 disaster in Athens, Greece — has reminded us of his greatness this century. He still is the best of the best over the larger run of time. His long career is still better than Roy’s long career or Izzo’s long career (though Roy and Izzo are gaining ground, they still have a long way to go to catch up). That has to be kept in mind when looking at the fullness of a career, and if you think that mentioning unflattering statistics is meant as a dig at Coach K, you’re simply assuming an intent which doesn’t exist.
Why would I mention that after Sunday’s loss to Michigan State, Coach K has made only two Final Fours in the past 15 seasons of college basketball? Why would I mention a fact a lot of people have a hard time believing? First, the public deserves to know. It deserves that level of information. Second, that kind of statistic is meant to be wrestled with, not easily agreed with or shouted down.
Coach K has struggled profoundly the past 15 years in March. That’s reality.
This does not, however, mean he is a fraud or even that he is overrated.
There was once a man who, in a 13-year period at UCLA, did not make a single Final Four.
A coach at California-Berkeley, Pete Newell, regularly got the better of him when Cal became the 1959 national champion and then reached the national title game again in 1960.
It is true that had John Wooden coached in the modern 64- or 68-team NCAA Tournament, he would have made more appearances than he actually did. Several of his 1950s UCLA teams would have been highly seeded in a 64-team field. However, the lack of spots in the field back then kept UCLA out a majority of the time.
Here we go: From 1949 through 1961 — his first 13 seasons at UCLA — guess how many NCAA Tournaments John Wooden made.
The answer: 3 — 1950, 1952, and 1956.
From 1953 through 1961, how many NCAA Tournaments did Wooden make?
The answer: 1 — 1956.
UCLA never got past the Sweet 16 in any of the three NCAA Tournaments it entered.
From 1958 through 1961, how many times did UCLA win 20 games in a season?
Yes, John Wooden — widely acknowledged (even among those who would say that Sam Gilbert influenced the course of college basketball history at UCLA) as one of the great COACHES in history, not just in basketball and not just in college basketball, had a difficult 13-year period.
It really does happen to the best of them — the VERY best.
I don’t cite Coach K’s struggles over the past 15 years to cut him down, but to show that this business of making Final Fours has ALWAYS been hard, even for the elites.
When Coach K was rocking and rolling at Duke, making five straight Final Fours from 1988 through 1992, Dean Smith at North Carolina was trying to push the boulder over the ridge.
Smith kept making Sweet 16s and Elite Eights in the 1980s — in fact, he made 13 straight Sweet 16s from 1981 through 1993, an unheard-of streak which is one of the most underrated feats in college basketball history. However, for all those Sweet 16s and several Elite Eights in that same span of time, Smith frequently struggled to make the Final Four. From 1983 through 1990, a period of eight straight seasons, Smith could not make the Final Four. Eighth-seeded Villanova ambushed him in the 1985 Elite Eight. Hugh Durham and Georgia beat him in 1983’s Elite Eight. Jim Boeheim got him in a 1987 regional final, Lute Olson and Arizona one year later in the 1988 West Regional final.
Eight straight seasons without a Final Four in North Carolina? That’s a crisis.
Eight straight seasons without a Final Four in Kansas? That’s also a crisis… and it’s what Roy Williams endured from 1994 through 2001. He created great teams at KU in those years: 1995, 1997 and 1998 were hugely talented. Yet, they couldn’t make the Final Four. Williams went nine years between Final Fours at Kansas, returning to the Big Show in 2002 after making his most recent previous appearance in 1993. This mirrored Smith, his mentor, returning to the Final Four in 1991 after his most recent previous appearance had been 1982.
It happens to the VERY best, folks. Coach K isn’t being shamed when one mentions his two Final Fours in the past 15 seasons. This business is simply ruthless.
Remember Ray Meyer of DePaul? The man was and is and always will be a Chicago college basketball legend. (Side note: My grandmother, who was born in Chicago and grew up there, once shared correspondence with him.) Meyer turned DePaul into a household college basketball name and a regular Final Four and national title contender. Mark Aguirre played there. Terry Cummings played there. Superb NBA players came through DePaul, and either CBS or NBC would regularly carry DePaul games in the 1980s. Yes, young folks, this used to be DePaul’s reality.
Meyer — for all his regular-season achievements and for all of his undeniable acumen as a basketball coach — needed 36 years to get back to the Final Four after making his first one. Meyer reached the Final Four at DePaul in 1943 and didn’t return until 1979 in Salt Lake City, the Magic-Bird Final Four defined by Indiana State and Michigan State meeting in the title game.
John Chaney, Lefty Driesell and Gene Keady — three great coaches — never even made the Final Four.
Lute Olson fielded some very talented teams at Arizona from 1989 through 1993 and didn’t make the Final Four once in those five seasons.
Jim Boeheim has never made the Final Four as a No. 1 seed at Syracuse, despite several chances to do just that.
John Thompson improbably could not return to the Final Four after the 1985 season despite multiple trips to the Elite Eight.
Bill Self has noticeably made lots of Elite Eights in his career… and has just as noticeably struggled to make the Final Four on a consistent basis. Kansas, from 2005 through 2018, won the Big 12 title (outright or shared) 14 straight times. It made the Final Four three times in that span, despite having a conference champion-level team. Kansas, under both Roy Williams and Bill Self, has made the Final Four far fewer times over the past 30 years than its level of regular-season performance would suggest.
Rick Pitino went six straight seasons without a Final Four at Louisville (2006-2011). He, too, has lost a lot of times in the Elite Eight over the years, multiple times to Tom Izzo.
Sean Miller, despite everything he has done at both Xavier and Arizona, is still waiting to make his first Final Four.
Rick Barnes, who became at this NCAA Tournament the 12th man in history to take at least three programs to the Sweet 16, still has just one Final Four appearance, 16 long years ago. Leonard Hamilton, who might look 55 but is actually 70, has never made the Final Four. Matt Painter still hasn’t made the Final Four at Purdue. Tony Bennett finally got there after years of losing in March.
On and on and on… but I go back to the very top of the Pyramid of Success: John Wooden went 13 straight years at UCLA without a Final Four.
When I mention that Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski, has reached only two Final Fours in the past 15 seasons, that fact is not meant to humiliate him or score some cheap anti-Duke points on a Twitter feed. The fact is meant to underscore that even for the best coach of his time (as affirmed by his work in the Olympics, even as the Final Four appearances have decreased), it is very hard to make the Final Four.
Don’t lose sight of that simple but potent reality.
You can listen to and subscribe to the CBB Today Podcast on iTunes right here.
As always, don’t forget to subscribe to our college basketball, NCAA Tournament and NBA Draft email newsletter below. It’s the only way to survive the impending alien invasion.